Tuesday, October 04, 2016

How to Research a School



How to Research a School
By Ben Feuer, Photo by tallchris

To gain entry to a top school these days, applicants and parents need to wear a lot of hats – scholar, change-maker, networker. One of the less-appreciated (but vitally important) hats is that of researcher. Across academic disciplines and continents, schools are turning to their full-length bedroom mirrors, striking a pose and whispering to candidates everywhere, “Tell me that you love me.”

The truth is, even though parents and students think of themselves as being in competition for the schools' affection, schools are also in competition with one another to snag the best students. And their preferred mode of salving their academic insecurities, apparently, is by having applicants write worshipful ‘why our school is the best’ essays. It's really not as crazy as it sounds, though, there are some good reasons for it. For one thing, it separates out those who are 'just tossing another on the pile' from those who are serious. And for another thing, schools know that if they make you research them, you just might fall in love with them unexpectedly. That's why somehow, even when essays get cut and word lengths shrink, this topic always seems to stick around.

It ain't because they're popular, we can tell you that much. School research essays drive candidates crazy, and many smart kids who cruise through every other stage of the process get stumped by this one. So we here at Forster-Thomas are taking a few minutes out of our busy schedules to get you up to speed on how to nail your school research.

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Dig deep on a few topics. Most school specific essays are like aerial bombardments or spaghetti foodfights – throw stuff everywhere and hope something sticks.  But the great ones are like surgical scalpels, cutting to the heart of the inherent bond between the candidate and the school. The key question to ask yourself while researching is – Do I care about this aspect of the school?

Once you pull a list of three or four specific things you care about (for a list of possible research topics, check out our other blog on this subject), it’s time to do your deep dive. Figure out the relevant keywords and Google them in various combinations and iterations. Read the first 5-9 links that come up – news articles, Rate my Professor reviews, EventBrites and Meetups, student blogs, Linkedin profiles, what have you. When evaluating this kind of material, the question you need to ask yourself is -- Does this sound different, or better, than how it’s done at other schools? How? Then -- and this is a key step -- WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. By efficiently combining and clearly referencing your sources now, you’ll be setting the stage for success later.

Think like a reporter. So now you have research. How do you put it to good use? Reporters don’t go into an article wondering what they’re going to learn. They already know most of the basic facts of the case before they set fingers to keyboard. In other words, they have a thesis, just like scientists and sufferers of college writing seminars. When they’re drawing on sources and pulling quotes, they’re filling in the gaps of a story they already know. On the other hand, most candidates approach conversations with adcoms, former students and professors with a nearly total blank slate, expecting their partner to fill them in on everything. Sorry, guys, but that’s not possible!  If you want a useful answer, you need to ask a useful question, which means you need to know what question to ask, which means you, too need a thesis as to why you're a good fit for your target school.

So write one out. Right now. In a sentence or two. It should be different for every school.

Good. Now that's done, you can start contacting your sources and filling in gaps.

Say you’re interested in the XYZ Club at RFD University. It would certainly be a great idea to talk to the former student who used to manage that club – but NOT until you’ve already Googled the club, checked out their Facebook page, studied the programs from their last three events, determined how large it is, how long it's been around, and a half-dozen other similar questions. That way, your conversation won’t consist of platitudes like “How did you like the club?”  You’ll be able to ask them “So last semester, who was it that got Bob Smith to come to campus? How was his talk? Did he recruit anyone out of the club last year? Whatever happened with that power struggle in the leadership where the club split two years ago?” When you then go to write the essay, you’ll be armed with quotes supporting a very specific thesis concerning where the club stands, what it does well, and how you can contribute to its further growth. Sound like too much work? For you, maybe. But the guy next to you is going to do it. And he's going to have a leg up on you. This part of the process is completely meritocratic -- you get out what you put in.

Show your sources. Name names of students and give class years IN THE ESSAY. Name the professors, classes, clubs and initiatives that interest you IN THE ESSAY. Reference the student blogs and websites you have read ... wait for it ... IN THE ESSAY. (Need a list of student blogs? We made one!)

Don’t self-censor early drafts. One mistake many applicants make is collecting a ton of research, throwing up their hands while trying to organize it all into a small word count, and then throwing it away and replacing it with one generic sentence they could have come up with before they ever applied!  This is where having a smart, thoughtful, patient reader comes in handy. Instead of trying to decide for yourself what sounds good, present the most comprehensive and strong argument you’ve got, and let someone else suggest where to trim.

The golden question. Wondering if you’ve gone deep enough on your research? This golden question will give you the answer. If I replaced the name of the school in ANY sentence of this essay with another school’s name, would the sentence still be true and make sense?  If the answer is YES, you need to do more research. If the answer is NO, you’ve done enough. Whether you’ve done it well is another matter.

Cohesion. Although you can’t treat a school-specific essay like a narrative essay (it doesn’t tell a story), you still need to consider whether the topics you’re discussing form a cohesive picture of how you’ll operate at the school. Are you really going to join the consulting club AND the finance club? Are you really going to be active with the East Asian students AND the Mambo club? Probably not, if you’re being honest with yourself. Your choices of what topics to discuss define where you’re looking to grow and how the schools can help you grow, so make choices that cohere.

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Sound like a lot of work? It can be. But here’s the good news – there actually is a silver lining to this cloud. All that research you’re doing just might actually help you figure out which school you want to attend in real life! You might meet someone, or learn something, that opens up your mind to the wide and wild world beyond the US News Rankings. We could think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.


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If you're thinking of applying to b-school this year, you have something right now that is more valuable than you can possibly imagine -- preparation time.  But we all lead busy lives -- what is the best use of that time?  What really matters, and how long will it take to do?

Article by Ben Feuer, Image by Moyan Brenn

We here at Forster-Thomas know that applying to any graduate program can feel completely overwhelming, with a hundred little things to take care of and not enough time to take care of it.  So what should you focus on and when?  Here's a cliff-notes answer to that important question.  Please note -- this is in no way intended to be a comprehensive list, but it should give you plenty to think about if you're trying to maximize your application's chances.

IF YOU HAVE ...

3 YEARS - Congratulations!  You're really into planning ahead.  Keep earning top grades at your school (or if that's too easy, transfer into a tougher school) and tackle meaningful leadership challenges in your clubs and organizations.  If you're early on in the workforce, start building the key professional contacts who can later serve as recommenders or write letters of reference for your target schools.

3 MONTHS - Depending on the relative strengths and weaknesses of your application, you could either focus on retaking your GMAT or taking your GRE (standardized test scores are important) or you could look to burnish your resume with meaningful leadership by founding a small business or taking on a big responsiblity for a nonprofit.

3 WEEKS -  Although this can be enough time to do a rushed GRE/GMAT retake, depending on when the tests are scheduled, perhaps the most important thing to think about with three weeks remaining is corralling your recommenders.  Hopefully they already know you're applying at this point, but it's a good time to put in a few gentle reminders, set up any necessary meetings to provide information or just catch up, et cetera.  

3 DAYS - Do a campus visit for the weekend!  Prepare by reaching out to students via Linkedin and asking pointed, thoughtful, comparative questions about their b-school experience thus far.  Invite them to talk about their favorite and least favorite aspects of what they do every day, and what parts of school they got the most out of.  Once you arrive on campus, take a lot of notes -- they'll help you when the time comes to write your "why school" essays -- and shake a lot of hands -- depending on the school, face-time with profs and admissions staff can help your chances of getting in quite a bit.

3 HOURS - Write a first draft of an essay.  Don't try to get it perfect your first time out of the box.  That isn't possible.  Just write something complete, authentic and honest with a clear plan in mind.  If you're going over three hours for your first draft, you're overthinking it!  Relax and wrap it up.  Then hand it to your brain trust (you do HAVE a brain trust, right?) and be prepared to be told it doesn't work at all.

30 MINUTES - Jot down five essay brainstorms for a particular prompt -- one-paragraph reminders of things you've done in the last three years or so.  You can also reformat your resume in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of negative space, compressing to one page, emphasizing recent employment and accomplishments, and purging things that aren't relevant for b-school like technical skills.

3 MINUTES - Take a deep breath and relax.  You've hit submit -- it's out of your hands now.  The best thing you can do is put it out of your mind and wait.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How to write an awesome why mba essay

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Why Stanford?  What actions have you taken to determine that Stern is the best fit for your MBA experience?  Given your individual background and goals, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time?  These are examples of Why MBA essays -- here is a primer on how to answer them.


Photo by Lillith, Article by Ben Feuer

If there is one type of essay everyone moans and groans about having to do — it’s open-ended essays (HBS, NYU, Booth).  But the “why school” essays run a close second.  Everyone struggles with them.  Yuki, a stellar candidate (professional consultant, mid 700s GMAT, 4.4 Engineering GPA from a top school) recently confided to me that writing “why school” essays was one of the hardest things he had to do in his entire application process.  He said to me, it felt like hitting a single, not a home run.

Listen up, Yuki -- you can absolutely hit a home run with your “why school” essay — if you are willing to put in the work.  

Writing a great school-specific essay requires a very different set of skills than writing a great “What Matters Most” essay, but both types of essay are important, and school-specific essays are much more common.  In fact, this year in the top 25 business schools, they are more common than the goals essay.  So read on to find out how to ace these essays.  But first -- a burning question answered!

Why are schools so concerned with research?  

Don’t they already know what is great about them?  Of course they do (although it never hurts to hear it again).  These essays demonstrate your level of interest in the program.  Have you visited campus?  Have you spoken to alumni?  Are you familiar with the enviroment?  Class size?  Reputation?  Interest correllates to yield, and yield boosts rankings — and everybody likes high rankings.  Ultimately, it’s about fit.

OK, fine.  What am I even supposed to talk about?


Here’s a partial list.  There are many more.

Top professors (shared history, publications, work history, teaching reputation), student body (diversity, age, work history), recent alumni (willingness to communicate, quotes drawn from experience), advanced alumni (internships and placement), career services, industry strengths (sectors, disciplines), specialized majors, ability to cross-enroll, strength of cross-disciplinary opportunities, campus setting (proximity to family, friendliness, size, appearance), local opportunities (incubators, fellowships, internships, work-study, volunteering), clubs and organizations (duration, comparative strength, leadership opportunities, ways to grow or give back), conferences and campus speakers (relevance, reputation), entrepreneurial opportunities (competitions, incubators), classes (first year, second year, specializations), campus visits (info sessions, experience, sitting in on classes), family history (connections, early life)

How many points should I be discussing?

A common bad strategy for this type of essay is overstuffing it with poorly supported points — referencing three classes in a row without explaining why any of them are necessary (or particularly strong at your chosen school), name dropping professors without explaining how their book on Cannibal Theory changed your life, using alumni quotes but providing no context as to their relevance.

Instead, make a few well chosen points and back them up.  What are the two or three things you MOST need from an MBA?  (and if you say “a bigger network”, I WILL smack you in the face).

Okay, so I know my two or three general areas of growth.  How do I write about them in the essay?

Simple. You research what at the school you have chosen makes it an ideal fit for those areas of growth.  Say you’re trying to learn marketing — well, Kellogg has a great marketing program, as we know — but did you know that LBS does too?  Maybe you need a basic grounding in finance — a school like Columbia, with a universal first year curriculum, would have a lot to offer you.  But these are broad strokes -- to make really solid points, you need to do research.

Why research?  I know their ranking.  Isn't that enough?

No. 

Actions speak louder than words.  Every early draft of a why school essay shares the same pernicious flaw — blanket statements made without evidence (to back them up) or context (to explain why they belong in the essay).  So how do we fix these statements?  Watch the following bland comment transform into a great point — through action.

Booth’s campus is very inclusive.  Awful.  A blanket statement with nothing to back it up — not a shred of research or introspection.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was very excited.  So-so — at least you spoke to (and quoted) an alumni.  But not much effort shown, nor much reflection on your own goals and needs.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was very excited — my four years at Ball State proved to me that I thrive when I am learning from my peers as much as my professors.  Above average — not great.  Action taken, related it back to your own experience.  This is what I’d consider “bare minimum” for making a solid point as to why you and a school are a good fit.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was excited, but skeptical — after all, nobody trumpets their campus’s cutthroat vibe.  So I went to see for myself, visiting on September 9th, 2014.  The info session was intimate — more so than any other I have attended — and Bob Davis ’12, my tour leader, was extraordinarily patient, walking me through Booth’s outstanding Operational Management program step by step.   Outstanding.  The candidate walks us through his thought process — smoothly incorporating his actions taken (alumni interviews, campus visit, talked to tour guide for 1/2 hour) into a larger journey of how he came to fall in love with Booth.  We believe him.

Don’t fake it.  

I know, I know — you’re thinking, nah, that sounds too hard, or too expensive — I don’t want to Google-stalk a professor, or haunt an internet forum, or network on LinkedIn to meet alums from a school — I’m busy!  (as 1000 tiny violins play)  Campus visits, I have a job!   I’ll just make it up.  Ok, big boy, you do that.  And you might fool your parents, or even a peer reviewer or two.  But you won’t fool the experts, who have to read literally THOUSANDS of these things.  They know their own programs, and if you think you can generalize your way around campus — sorry, no.

You can’t have fit without a goal.

Your school may ask you “why us” but may not ask specifically about your goals.  Use one or two sentences to tell them about your goals anyway.  Why?  Because if you don’t, how are you going to show that you are a good fit on campus?  All professional goals require skills — some technical, some ‘soft skills’ — and opportunities, like networking and partnerships.  Your goal and your past experience dictates what you need from the school.

Your skills are not just your skills.  

So, you want to get an MBA to learn leadership.  OK.  What aspect of leadership are you looking to develop?  Small teams?  Big teams?  Collaborating remotely?  Speaking in front of groups?  Setting long term visionary goals?  Achieving short term objectives?  By better defining your growth areas as a leader, you can focus more precisely on what the school has to offer you.  The same thing applies to every discipline you wish to develop — precise thinking and precise language will set you apart.

The end -- and the beginning.

That's it -- everything you know to write a great "why school essay.  It's not complicated -- but it's also not easy.  It takes time, and thought, to get it right.  Still, as with everything in this process, practice makes perfect -- so get to work on those drafts!



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Just like MBA candidates, our staff does info sessions and campus tours to stay current on admissions news, trends, and academic offerings. And then we provide that info to you, free of charge, in handy blog form. We’re awesome. You’re welcome.

By Susan Clark


New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live Free or Die” is proudly emblazoned on each and every license plate.  Driving into Hanover, the home of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, I noticed an additional comment on a bumper sticker: “New Hampshire - Live, Freeze and Die.” Yes, New Englanders like to complain about the weather, but as I soon discovered, there is no warmer business school than Tuck.

I visited Tuck this summer to see Matthew, one of my all-time favorite candidates, the week before his graduation. Tuck has everything you’d expect in an Ivy League school. Century-old neoclassical buildings mix with tasteful modern brick and glass construction that fits in just right. I fell in love with Stell Hall, a long, wood-paneled room with a fireplace where students gather to study and get coffee.  It feels more like a great living room than the Mall-like cafes I’ve seen at other schools. 

While all this real estate is nice to take in, the more important point is the sense of community the place engenders. At the end of the first semester, all the second years gather at Stell Hall to congratulate the first years for making it through their first step, and McLaughlin holds events for their very active Alumni community. It is no wonder Tuck boasts the largest percentage of alumni giving of any business school. It's not merely a rest stop on the way to one’s career; it’s a true home. 

This feeling of community pervades every aspect of Tuck. The administration is responsive, and professors open their nearby homes to students.  Because there are so many team projects, there is less need for the contrived “bonding events” other schools have. Matthew recounted the carefully chosen groups for First Year Projects, where students can apply what they learn through the core curriculum to solve the problems of local businesses. There are opportunities to create and get funding for group projects in the Entrepreneurship track, and Dartmouth engineering students frequently get involved. It’s easy to connect to professors or alumni on a personal basis, and if you do, they’ll do all they can to support you moving forward in your career. 

The downside of Tuck’s small size and isolated location is less access to resources and a smaller network. Finance students have an especially hard go; 4% go into PE/VC after graduation, as opposed to 11% from HBS. Although Tuck students are recruited by important Midwest manufactures like Deere and Company, if you want to move to California upon graduation, you may have to do more work getting recruited. 50% of Tuck alumni stay in the Northeast, 16% go West. Tuck Alumni are happy to meet you, but unless you are a really good fit, they may not be able to help. I think that is why Tuck gets the rap of being “isolated.” Even so, 95% of Tuck graduates are employed soon after graduation.

My conclusion is that if you are considering Tuck, you should do extensive research into the faculty and alumni.  If you find they have the resources you need, the place is fantastic, and a place you will want to call home for many years to come.  Just don’t forget to bring snow boots.

Tuck School of Business Facts:

Full time students:  500+; 281 in class of 2014

Faculty Members: 50; 70% tenured

Global Alumni Community: 9,000 living alumni, 11% international. 70% donate

Required Core Classes: 16, including first-year project. Opting/Testing out is permitted.  

Specialization Required? No, but you can “focus” on Finance, Health care, Entrepreneurship, Strategy and General Management, Business and Society, or Global Business

Average GMAT: 718

GMAT range: 670-760

Program Cost: $117,930

Top Three teaching methods: Case Study, Lectures, Team Projects

Female Students: 34%

Minority Students: 17%

International Students:  32%

Job Offers: 95%; 88% are facilitated by Tuck

Top Industry: Consulting, 36%

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Should a prospective student visit college before applying?  Does a student gain significant advantage visiting or can "Demonstrated Interest" be displayed by attending local fairs, hotel and high school presentations? 

YES. 

Visiting schools is a MUST—at least the ones that are most important to a student. Colleges do take it seriously and it absolutely helps the student demonstrate interest—especially if you’re on the edge (academically or otherwise) or you’re applying to select/top colleges and universities.

Nothing says "I am serious" like showing up on campus. College fairs and online research are good. After all, Big-Brother College knows when you’ve been checking ‘em out—every time you go to a college site. But does your mother suddenly think you’re really doing your homework because the postal worker delivered an info pack from Harvard? C’mon.  

Consider visiting college a “cost of doing business” for applying to (and attending) higher education. (This will become clear when Mom & Dad get that bill for $50K.)  Look at it from the point of view of an admissions team: You are willing to shell out the money to go to their “dream school,” but you can't bother to look at it until you know you're accepted? What does that say? Certainly not "I'm serious."

If this is not enough to get my point across and you or your parents don’t see the import of going to visit, then you better have something really amazing to bring to the table—at the very least, excellent grades. For students who are not clear admits (and who is for the most selective schools?), only attending college fairs and hotel and high school presentations just doesn’t say "I wanna be at your school." Much better (and on the record) is a registered visit. (That means you actually go online and sign up for a scheduled college tour and college info session.)  The same is true for the “clear admit”—schools don't want to waste an offer on a student who does not seem like he or she is ever going to say "yes" if accepted.

And what if you are on the edge academically—and you do bother to figure out a way to visit? You might just get there, decide it's a whopping "not for me" and voilà, you just saved mom and Dad some real $$$$—not to mention the cost of applying.

As for NOT having the time—that is the worst reason not to visit. Make the time. Time is NO excuse. (And summer visits are absolutely fine.)
Making the time is what responsible people do.  If Mom or Dad can't take you, get it together with a few friends and get on a bus or train, or car and get there. (Also, getting in a car with four of your friends saves money; split the gas fare, make a bunch of sandwiches, and off you go. That's what we all did back in the day. When did traveling independently become such big deal for someone who claims to be ready to go off to college?)

If you live in a foreign country, or you're on the other side of the country—and you are not from a family of means—then you get the pass. Then and only then can you settle for meeting with the reps who visit Nigeria. (I am not being sarcastic.)

And if, like many of my truly disadvantaged kids, you really can't afford to visit, then you get a pass. In both cases, you need to find a way to explain your reasons for not visiting in a letter of some sort or in your supplemental essay for that school and you had better done everything else in your power to research that college and write about these extraordinary things you did to get to know the school and its majors and programs beyond fairs. You scoured though YouTube videos, youniversitytv.com, contacted the head of (for example) the College Republicans Club or the GLBT club president, that Accounting professor, and on, and on, and on. And explain why you were not able to visit.

I am serious. It just gets Auntie Evan crazy when y’all come up with excuses like time. I'd like to know what you’re so busy with that you cannot find a day here or there or a weekend to visit three of your ten top choice schools. Think of it this way: If a college was a girl or guy you were into, you’d fall over backward to find the time to get to that first date.

In short, not visiting campuses is “pennywise and pound-foolish.” Ask your grandfather what that means.

Auntie Evan


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